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Urban Uprisings and Their Suppression
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The Great Uprising of Kabul

The commotion in Kabul was a reflection of the will of the people because it was the capital city of the country. Party activists tried to dissuade shopkeepers from closing their shops and stores, but to no effect. A day before the uprising security officials arrested about two hundred persons, including a number of Khalqis, for inciting the people. The closure of the shops had been preceded by the distribution of clandestine antigovernment leaflets (shabnamaha). To incite the people still further, a group of two or three young men would appear in front of each shopkeeper and warn him to close the shop. He was also told to repeat with them that “Karmal was a traitor, and the Russians should leave our fatherland.” It was also said that “under-ground groups had smuggled rifles into the city beforehand.”[2]

The next sign of the storm was shown in the moonlit evening, when the cry “Allah o Akbar!” (God is great) echoed and reechoed over the breadth and length of the city, something unheard before. This was said to have been ordered, but who had ordered it is not known.[3] The chanting was an extension of the practice in Herat and Kandahar, where two evenings earlier such azans had become intense. In Kabul only men, including myself and young children, called the azans. The azans sounded the whole night. Nearby villagers also took part in making them. Soon the sound and color of rockets fired into the sky accompanied the azans. The invaders from the military cantonments in the city fired the rockets to frighten the people. In response, the Afghans raised the volume of their calls. It was as if a competition was under way, and indeed it was. This protest coincided with a reception in the Soviet embassy commemorating the sixty-second anniversary of the foundation of the Soviet army. The reception was announced in the name of the military attaché of the embassy, yet Babrak Karmal had also attended as head of state. This further angered the Afghans, who saw it below the dignity of the office of the head of state, even though they now opposed that office.

Early the next morning (22 February 1980, or 3 Hoot 1358) thousands of Afghans consummated the uprising, beginning in the old part of the city. Almost simultaneously, groups of people by the thousands appeared in different quarters of the city: Dasht-e-Barchi, Pul-e-Khishti, Mohammad Jan Khan Watt, Salang Watt, Jamal Maina, Beni Hissar, and Qala-e-Fathullah.[4] Along the way thousands of others joined the march, which made it difficult even to estimate their total number. Except for the pro-Moscow communists, the people of the city either took part in the uprising or supported it, and Kabul was the first to oppose the invaders and the regime. The marchers were determined and undaunted. Those in the front ranks carried the green flag of Islam and chanted the slogan “Allah o Akbar!” Others incited them with fiery and evocative words. In the Haji Yaqub Square a group of women also chanted anti-Soviet slogans until they were dispersed.[5]

Soon armed units that had already taken positions in streets met the column marching along the Salang Watt in the central part of the city. Some Khalqis had declined to take action against the demonstrators. The demonstrators were unarmed, marching peacefully. Security forces, speaking through loudspeakers, asked them to disperse. They declined. After firing into the air, the security forces then fired at them at random. The marchers in the front lines fell to the ground. For a while, the flags were not allowed to remain on the ground with the fallen martyrs. They were picked up by men from the rear lines, who continued the march in the face of now sporadic firing.

The demonstrators could not continue their march in the face of the cutting force. After some time they ran for safety in the adjacent narrow lanes, only to join the main body later. It was then that they looted some shops and set some transport vehicles on fire. Their targets were state property, although private property was also looted. Finally they ran to the mosque of Pul-e-Khishti to take sanctuary, as is the custom of the land. But there, too, in some places they were fired on. After the dispersal of this uprising, security forces again began firing into the air, giving the impression that they had been doing so all along.

In the Dehburi Square in the Mier Wais Maidan, many groups of demonstrators converged, forming the biggest protest rally in the western part of the city. Those who started their protest from the town of Dasht-e-Barchi were the largest of all the groups. In their long march to the area, thousands of others joined them. When they reached Pul-e-Sokhta, the security men fired at them. Some protesters were lost, but the rest continued their march. The police of the Mier Wais Maidan headquarters also fired on them. This time they lost a larger number and dispersed. At about this time another column of protesters arrived from Qala-e-Shada and headed toward the government bakery through Dehburi, where the dispersed protesters of the Dasht-e-Barchi column joined them. The combined group occupied the headquarters of the police of the Khushal Maina. Here the police not only did not oppose them but even let them have weapons. The house of the fallen Amin was looted. An armored Russian contingent then appeared in the area, and helicopters flew low over the protesters, apparently passing on information about their movements to the armored units.

Toward midday the sounds of heavy bombs exploding elsewhere shook Khushal Maina. High in the sky warplanes roared. Rockets were fired from the low-flying helicopters. Armored units on the ground also began firing. Thus, both from the sky and the ground the Russians used their weapons for the first time against common Afghans in their own city. But these protesters, protected by modern buildings, did not lose as many as the protesters in the Salang Watt. The invaders apparently intended more to frighten than to kill. At this time I fled the area for safety, feeling a sense of appreciation for those journalists who cover the forefronts of battlefields. The sound of firing in Khushal Maina was heard until six o’clock in the evening.

Another column of protesters emerged in Chindawal near the center of the old city. After taking weapons from the area police headquarters, the protesters marched toward the main road of Jada-e-Maiwand in the middle of the crowded part of the city. This section had also been the scene of clashes in the preceding summer between the locals and the Khalqi government. Both uprisings were suppressed. The column of protesters in the Bagh-e-Ali Mardan part of the old city also succeeded in acquiring weapons from the local police headquarters. A determined column of these protesters managed to reach as far as the east gate of the presidential palace (often called the People’s House), but after suffering casualties they were forced to retreat and disperse. In the confrontation with the presidential guards about fifty soldiers were killed.

From the suburban interconnected villages of Deh Dana and Afshar close to Darulaman, people went out of their homes and, chanting “Allah o Akbar!” and anti-Soviet slogans, attacked a few nearby tanks. The tanks withdrew from the area, but shortly afterward a number of military jeeps containing armed men appeared at the scene. By that time the number of protesters had also increased. The men in the jeeps, speaking through loudspeakers, told the protesters that gatherings of more than four people had been declared unlawful under martial law; thus, they were required to disperse. When the people declined, they were fired on. About 120 fell dead, and the rest fled. Columns of protesters also appeared, as noted, in many other parts of the city, but information about them is not available. By nightfall calm prevailed over the city. About two thousand people were said to have been killed, but the actual number was probably about eight hundred. Four hundred bodies were seen in the morgue of the Four-Hundred-Bed Hospital.[6] Protests still continued for the next six days, but no longer in the streets. During this period shops and stores, except those for essential goods, were kept closed until the security men compelled shopkeepers to open them. Knowing in advance that the storm was coming, the authorities responded quickly. They took measures to suppress the marches, and they adopted other measures to forestall disturbances in the future. Around midday, in a special television broadcast, the government announced that martial law was in effect in the city. Declaring meetings unlawful, it forbade people to be seen in groups of more than four persons. It also declared the city to be under curfew at night and ordered people to surrender the unlicensed weapons in their possession. Further, it stated that agents of the governments of Pakistan, the United States, and China had tried to disturb security and destroy state property. “An unfortunate group of sixteen Pakistanis, with two Chinese, two Americans, and an Egyptian, were arrested in Kabul, accused of being agents to create bloody pogroms and murder.”[7] The government did not mention the name of Iran, although the Afghan Shi’ite followers of the Ayatullah Khomeini were active in the uprising and had chanted his name. In the uprisings during the Khalqi period, both Iran and Pakistan had been blamed. Later in the evening the regime announced that government offices were closed until further notice; they were reopened on 25 February. “Many more Kabulis were summarily shot from among 5000 arrested after the uprising.”[8] Among them were a number of pro-Amin Khalqis.

The measures opened a new stage of repression for the period when Karmal headed the regime. Common sense would have regarded the uprising as an indication of the will of the people. The policy of occupation should have been revised, as the British had done under similar circumstances about a hundred years earlier. Instead, the Soviets stressed violence in reaching the goals their rulers had set. To establish the regime, they abandoned a defensive posture in favor of offensive measures. The new posture became clear in other cities, where bands of armed agents of KhAD searched houses for suspects, while army units searched for draft evaders. During the curfew hours KhAD agents roamed the streets of Kabul. Not a night passed without shops being looted or houses searched and their inhabitants molested or insulted and their valuables taken. The Russian patrols also looted shops. In the name of security the regime created insecurity, and its measures to undo some of the repressive measures of its predecessor lost meaning. The regime became more isolated from the people and more dependent on the Soviet might.

In evaluating this uprising, we might note that no group of protesters was organized, although it has been claimed that “to oppose the Russians the whole city of Kabul had been organized to rise on 21 February.”[9] Only the column of Chindawal seemed organized. No prominent figure was seen among the marchers, who were ordinary citizen. In this respect, the protesters differed from those who had risen against the British during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the last century. At the time such men as General Mohammad Jan Khan Wardak, General Ghulam Hayder Charkhi, Mier Bacha of Kohistan, and others led the uprising. The actions of the present protesters were not coordinated.

A conspicuous feature of the opposition was the participation of the Shi’as with their Sunni brothers; together, they constituted the great majority of the city’s population. The Shi’ite Qizilbashes and Hazaras dominated the columns of demonstrators emerging from the Dasht-e-Barchi, Qala-e-Shada, Deh Dana, Jamal Maina, Karta-e-Sakhi, and Chindawal. The significance of this can be understood when it is borne in mind that their role was reversed during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. A portion of the educated Qizilbashes were Parchamis, who were now called “the internal Russians.” In opposing the regime and the occupation army, the Sunni followers of the Islamic Party, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Shi’ite followers of the Islamic Movement, led by Ayatullah Shaykh Asif Muhsini, and thousands of others joined hands. The Maoist Shu’lais likewise incited the insurgents, particularly the Qizilbashes and the Hazaras. In this they were quite successful, working as if they were competing with the Islamic movement. A number of pro-Amin Khalqis also took part in the uprising, either by inciting the insurgents or by not performing their jobs in critical hours. It was because of the unwillingness of some Khalqi officers to go against the insurgents that the Russian forces were brought in. All Parchamis and most Khalqis joined hands with the occupation forces against their own compatriots.

Although rifles were smuggled into the city, they were apparently not used. The protesters, particularly those who were from the suburban areas, carried spades, clubs, a number of antiquated rifles, and swords. A lame, middle-aged villager with an antiquated sword in his hand was seen struggling toward the city to join the multitude, denouncing the infidel Russians as he went. The voices heard among the protesters were directed against the Soviets and infidelity (kufr) and showed concern for the country. Some said, “O Muslims, infidels have come and occupied our fatherland and endangered our religion,” while others cried, “O Russians, get out of our land!”

The number of the protesters cannot be determined. It is, however, not difficult to say to what segment of society they belonged. The areas from which they emerged are areas mainly of the lower professional middle class and unskilled laborers. They are also areas of shopkeepers and artisans of various professions. The Hazara coolies also come from these areas. Eight of them were found dead near Dehburi with their sacks on their backs.

This description might suggest that the protesters’ grievances were economic. Far from it. In the face of a ruthless enemy, prudence dictated that prominent persons remain behind, while thousands of anonymous persons—inspired by their religious values, which were now visibly threatened by atheists, and by the values of their country, now openly endangered by foreign occupants—confronted the occupying forces with empty hands, even going so far as to sacrifice their lives. They did so knowing that the army of one of the mightiest powers in the world patrolled their city. The Afghans showed an opposition to foreign intruders that transcended religious, linguistic, and ethnic boundaries. The ties that now bound them overshadowed their mutual differences. That the resistance groups in the opposition camp had not yet mul-tiplied, that the followers of the few existing ones had not aligned against each other on party lines, and that the traditional way of waging jehad in a collective spirit was strong may in part account for the solidarity. So against the Russian intruders the Afghans responded in unison, despite the intimidating odds. In the entire period of national resistance, it was the peak of Afghan solidarity.

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